WebMD, the medical advice website frequented by hypochondriacs and people without health insurance, is known for its comically extreme search results. To an inquiry about a “sore wrist” it may respond with degenerative joint disease, in “stomach pain” it might identify cancer.
When it comes to matters of the heart, however, WebMD’s symptom checker is hopelessly bound to the physical realm. Those with metaphorical heartsickness can seek treatment in a different corner of the internet: the diffuse network of blogs, podcasts, advice columns, and infographics offering to weigh in on relationship health. They are the ones to warn us of our toxic behaviors and our unhealthy bonds, to expose us to the rot silently festering in all of our experiences of love.
Whether digital love doctors invented, popularized, or simply drew from it, ours is a language of romance that situates itself in the world of medicine, and more specifically, psychology. And as with most psychological terms that creep into a broader cultural conversation, those that are applied to love have grown far beyond their original meanings. Codependence, for example, originally referred to the experience of alcoholics’ spouses. On Twitter and TikTok, it is simply a relationship in which people are overly attached to one another. Others, like “toxicity” or “unhealthiness,” are even fuzzier in their actual meaning, but are generously doled out by strangers, to strangers, nonetheless. These words gorge on their own virality, widening their definitions with every meme, formulaic tweet, and bubble-lettered Instagram graphic in which they appear.
Even across many meanings, the language of pathologized romance is at least partially invested in debunking what is seemingly an essential quality of love: its ability to transform and even suspend our status as individuals.
Though the long history of understanding love lacks consensus, constantly recurring is the idea that love is synthesis, or at least a yearning for it. For some this meant that love is a way of reaching the divine. Or, more pessimistically, it is an autoerotic projection, an attempt to bridge that untraversable gulf between us and the Other by giving ourselves to someone who only exists in our own mind. Or maybe, it’s what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called a “chiasm,” an all-consuming intertwining of us and our beloved, an experience of being at once within and outside ourselves that allows us to transcend our subjectivity, to experience the world in a new way.
Such visions of love, however, are ill-suited to our world of pop psychology paeans to self-sufficiency and individual gain.
The most potent distillation of this pseudo-psychological reframing of romantic love can be found on the blog of bestselling self-help author Mark Manson. His blog posts, no matter their subject, all elucidate a dichotomy between “love” and the other, more measurable, and therefore more reliable, elements of a relationship. “A toxic relationship occurs when one or both people are prioritizing love over the three core components of a healthy relationship: respect, trust, and affection,” he explains. “Love is an emotional process; compatibility is a logical process.” “Love should not be the reason to stay in a relationship, and that’s because it can cloud our judgment.”
In Manson’s binary, the aspects of love that aren’t subjectable to empirical treatment are cancers on the body of human connection that must be eliminated. But the real allure, I think, is his promise of control. If only we locate that built-in calculus of “compatibility” in our brains and use it to uncloud our judgement, the mystery of our own desires and intentions will show itself to us, and love will become a “healthy” choice rather than something that happens to us without our consent.
Gary Chapman, whose contribution to the lovescape is the Five Love Languages®️ taxonomy, writes that a relationship is healthy if "you're happy or things are going well at least 80 percent of the time." The implication being, of course, that personal happiness is the primary virtue of love, and that its percentage can be easily calculated.
“Don’t lose yourself in your relationship” advises popular mindfulness blog Tiny Buddha. “You are sovereign and your ‘no’ is sacred. Mind your business,” reminds yet another.
In these frameworks, a love that forces you to give up aspects of your personal autonomy is abnormal, broken, diseased. Love might enrich your life and provide you certain pleasures, but it doesn't act as an affirmation of your being, and definitely shouldn’t be essential to your life’s purpose. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English wrote in their 1978 book For Her Own Good, “If you are not responsible to anyone but yourself, it follows that relationships with other people are merely there to be exploited when (emotionally) profitable, and terminated when they cease to be.”
But it would be unfair, myopic even, to say that rationalized, individualistic, pathologized love is simply a blighted version of a once pure and sacred entity. Love doesn’t happen in some kind of philosophical vacuum. It’s sculpted and conditioned by the institutions that legitimize it, the customs and practices through which it is exercised, and the images that represent it.
It’s not incidental that calls to cut out toxic people, avoid codependency, stop thinking you owe people affection, and put your own needs first are more often aimed at women. It’s women, after all, who suffered most from previous social systems of love, where romantic devotion and emotional desire were distinctly feminized, and went hand-in-hand with domestic labor, childcare, and sexual subjugation.
Moreover, psychological abuse and mistreatment themselves aren’t just pseudoscientific buzzwords, they’re real things that happen in relationships. A model that prioritizes the needs and sovereignty of the individual person, then, feels like a direct reaction to the unfreedoms of the past and the psychic pains of romantic bonds.
But surely something is lost when we push devotion and care further into the dirty corner of undesirable, unfree, weak, and “feminine” traits. If we come out more optimized, atomized, more alienated from one another’s experience, are we really winning?
While writing this, I repeatedly questioned myself: Is it silly to lament the depreciation of attachment when economic mobility, legal status, and social acceptance are still so firmly bound to the institution of marriage? When even the individualistic language of self-help liberation simply transplants the terms of monogamous, committed romance and applies them to the individual (self-love, self-gifts, self-treating, and in the extreme, self-marriage)?
Our culture is, undoubtedly, still obsessed with images of committed love—with romcoms and cute old couples, Valentine’s Day and weddings, with deletable dating apps that find our perfect match. But it’s also disgusted by love’s reality, repulsed by its negation of autonomy, by its demand for sacrifice and selflessness, its threat to displace the logic of transaction with something unquantifiable.
What’s more, attachment, sacrifice, and care aren’t just features of love, and a rejection of them in popular culture has consequences far beyond romance. The idea that caring for and about those around us is synonymous with a noxious neediness, clinginess, or even oppression is consequential not only for our personal relationships but our political system, where the principle of care is desperately lacking.
While we gulf down self-help niblets on boundaries or self-love and download breakup apps that claim to automate us out of heartbreak, our actual access to professional mental healthcare is pathetic precisely because of the idea that we’re all disconnected monads and the government “doesn’t owe us anything.”
Perhaps what we need, then, isn’t the infusion of empiricism and individuality into love, but the opposite: the introduction of love’s generosity, selflessness, and commitment into everything else.
Decades before Mark Zuckerberg launched the “hot or not” game that would, eventually, monopolize global information flows, a few other Harvard kids had a similar pitch. Their tech startup, est. 1965, was a computerized dating service called “Operation Match.” They even wrote it a jingle. “She's my IBM baby, the ideal lady,” the song goes: “Whenever I see her, I want to give her one great big IBM kiss.” Hypnotic.
Operation Match was one of the first in a wave of modernized, technologized matchmaking companies that sprung up in the sixties and seventies. They offered punch card questionnaires that were slotted into IBM computers, which spat out a list of enumerated soulmates. “Do you believe in a God who answers prayer?” inquired Operation Match’s form (true to its Harvard origins, it also asked about SAT scores and income level). Another company, the UK-based Dateline, had its lonely clientele sketch a series of doodles to reveal their “unique” characters.
The matchmaking algorithms were distinctly unsophisticated. Operation Match’s founders later admitted they had ignored many of the lofty, probing questions about God and just directed the machines to match up singles based on more rudimentary measures—location, age, gender. The services garnered mass appeal anyway. It was their philosophy, not their function, that was popular: one of pure and scientific rationality, of technological individualism. If you could just understand yourself more perfectly, you could find—or, at least, calculate—your optimal and singular match. And who could understand you better than a computer?
Nowadays, online dating sites have taken this philosophy to further extremes. The dating website OkCupid, for instance, has built its empire on compatibility calculation. Back in 2008, tens of thousands of user-created personality quizzes proliferated on the site. Each one you took would add another descriptor to your profile, another data point in service of more perfect sex or love. When I was a middle schooler with questionable access to the internet, I spent a lot of time taking these quizzes, wholly and blissfully unaware that OkCupid was also a dating site. It fed a kind of adolescent self-absorption more than any romance; a burning desire to be mirrored and defined.
OkCupid eventually dropped that feature, but still offers infinite standalone questions for users (such as: “Do you own any dice with more than six sides?” “Are your parents ugly?”). The strange queries all drape OkCupid’s matchmaking in a certain mystique but, like the digital matchmaking of old, the site’s algorithms serve mostly to reinforce inequities. The conservative undertows of modern dating, which assume monogamous and static compatibility, are thoroughly encoded. Yet optimized romance remains in high demand. There’s an allure, I suppose, to the kind of intimacy machines can crunch; the kind that you can prove.
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